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Giuseppe Verdi: La Traviata
10 Mar 2006

VERDI: La Traviata

Could La Traviata be the opera with the most versions available on DVD? The appetite for the doomed heroine never wavers.

Giuseppe Verdi: La Traviata

Eva Mei, Piotr Bezcala, Thomas Hampson, Chorus and Orchestra of the Zurich Opera House, Franz Welser-Most (cond.)
Live from the Zurich Opera House 2005

ArtHaus 101 247 [DVD]


The talk of last year was the production at Salzburg with Anna Netrebko, Rolando Villazon, and Thomas Hampson; a live recording has been released on CD, and a DVD may follow. Hampson’s Papa Germont can be seen on another 2005 Traviata, directed by Jurgen Flimm and filmed in Zurich by Felix Breisach. Eva Mei and Piotr Bezcala round out the cast of the DVD.

ArtHaus has gone to some expense with the packaging. There is a slipcover for a triple-fold-out, with vivid photos from the production on every face. The booklet essay runs through the basics of the creation of Verdi’s opera, while a note on the case assures us that Flimm’s production of “discreet sets” explores “the opera’s psychological landscapes…fully and effectively…”

On the screen, the production can be seen as “discreet,” but surely some viewers will find it barren, perhaps even cheap. The backdrop consists of a folding black wall, around and through which characters appear. Some tables serve as the furnishing for Violetta’s home in act one, while in act two some lawn furniture and a plot of dirt with a few flowers (they look like cabbages from the long view) indicate the country house. The wall folds out to form the party scene at Flora’s, and for the final act Violetta’s home is bare of everything except a bed and an anachronistic electric heater in the middle of the floor.

Costumes for some of the minor characters appear fairly traditional, but the three main roles have outfits of vague time period, with Mei’s Violetta in particular looking more modern than the men, with her attractive short cut and sleek wardrobe.

In other words, for those who want a traditional, even lavish production (for all but the last act, one hopes), this production will not do. On its own terms, Flimm’s design does serve the primary objective of putting the emphasis on the human drama, and he has three fine principals to bring life to the otherwise arid environment.

But that is not to say that the direction cannot be questioned. Starting with the men, the approach to Alfredo, very well sung by Piotr Bezcala, seems wrong-headed. He is a naïf in act one, even dopey, clutching a ridiculous bouquet of fake flowers and shyly hanging back like a junior high school boy at his first dance. Bezcala has the looks to entrance most any woman, but what Violetta sees in him, as directed here, may confuse some viewers. Later Bezcala scores some dramatic points, flying into a rage at Violetta’s abandonment and ecstatically embracing her at their reunion. He also takes the high option at the end of his second act cabaletta, and with fair success.

Hampson’s Giorgio Germont takes stiff and proper as the defining characteristics of the elder Germont, to the extent that one worries when he takes a seat that the imaginary stick inside him will snap and cause grave internal injury. His love for his son comes wrenchingly into view at the end of the second act country house scene, although some of the gasps and awkward shuffling may be overdone to some viewers. He also gets the cabaletta to “Di provenza,” and sings it well enough to make one regret its absence in other productions. However, it does require that the Alfredo spend many a minute anxiously clutching Violetta’s note in agony.

But the heart and soul of any Traviata is its Violetta, and Mei took this viewer by surprise. She has been effective in some RCA recordings, and she gives a very professional performance in a recent La Sonnambula DVD. Here, she has a role that employs both her impressive coloratura and the ease of her top, best displayed by a fine high E flat at the end of act one. Throughout, she sings with graceful command of her resources.

Her acting favors dignity over pathos. In a notable exception, when Alfredo on meeting her expresses his wish that a beauty such as hers should find “immortality,” the fleeting wince of Violetta’s face rends the heart. Overall, however, in act one she may be a bit too cool, with the cries of “joy” really feeling forced. Similarly, she seems to concede to Papa Germont with less pain than some other Violettas, and when she says she will accomplish the break with Alfredo by dying, her underplaying may not convince all viewers. Act three, however, finds her right in the heart of the role, with a tear-inducing final collapse. For completists, she also sings both verses to “Addio del passato.”

Welser-Most’s conducting starts off rather cheerless and over-emphatic, especially during the “Libiamo,” but perhaps he chose to emphasize some of Verdi’s anger at bourgeoisie morality. As the opera progresses, he offers fine support.

The titles have some odd phrases: Germont calls Violetta a “sublime victim” and Violetta urges Alfredo to marry a “chaste virgin.” Well, yes, it is nice to find a chaste one, but beggars can’t be choosers. As they say.

For passionate lovers of the opera, this should be part of the collection. It can’t be called an unqualified success, but with a riveting Violetta and two fine singers in the other leads (as well as an Annina, Irene Friedli, who for once doesn’t sound a 1,000 years old), quibbles about the production and direction can be put aside. Recommended.

Chris Mullins
Los Angeles Unified School District, Secondary Literacy

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